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Before the Centenary Celebration

22 Feb 2013

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Guest Columnist: Chris Okotie


The year 1914 has a dual significance for the world and Nigeria. For the world because it marked the beginning of the First World War and for our nation because it was the year of the amalgamation of the Colony of Lagos with the Protectorates of Southern and Northern Nigeria to form one Nigeria as we are today.

We may not know how much importance the world attaches to a World War that is fast vanishing in our memory, but Nigerians do recognise that 1914 was the year of our “creation” as a country by the British colonial masters. The name Nigeria was suggested by Flora Shaw, mistress of our first Governor-General, Lord Frederick Lugard, in 1898.  Flora of course would later become Lugard’s wife.

Already, to celebrate this milestone in January next year, the Federal Government has set up a committee to coordinate what promises to be a huge event. A centenary in the life of any nation is a major landmark. The fact that our nation survived all the vicissitudes of existence; including natural and man-made disasters is one good reason to celebrate. We’ve had our fair share of internal conflicts and a long spell of bad leadership, but that should not deny us a celebration even if a period like this calls for more introspection.

But let’s go back a bit into history. What later evolved as Nigeria were a number of small and large kingdoms scattered around the River Niger area. These kingdoms were governed by local chiefs, obas, emirs and clan heads. Some, like the Benin Kingdom, had diplomatic relations and trade contacts with European nations like the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal as far back as the middle ages until the scramble for Africa after the continent was partitioned at the Berlin Conference of 1885.

After the abolition of slave trade, Europeans shifted their attention to trade to feed their home industries with raw materials from Africa. This was the venture the Royal Niger Company was engaged in at the initial period when Lugard represented it in the colony.
But gradually, the company became involved in the administration of the protectorates, systematically and consciously eroding the authority of the native authorities until Her Majesty’s government exerted full colonial authority over the entire territory through the amalgamation in 1914 with Lugard as the first Governor General. In a nutshell, this is the evolution of our nation, but it is by no means exhaustive.

Before the big party in January 2014, let us for a moment examine the legacies of colonisation, and what we have done to preserve and build on them. That should be the basis for any worthwhile celebration. To embark on a festival of this scale without some critical soul-searching at a time when the same nation we intend to celebrate is showing strains of failure is a contradiction in terms; a barren exercise, so to speak.

Whatever the downside of colonisation the British united this country; brought us development, set up the armed services, built public utilities and social infrastructures too numerous to count, and gave us a political system to pilot the ship of state. The judiciary, civil service, the prison system, industrial estates, plantations, the produce boards, organised import and export trade, the oil and manufacturing industries, the ports and aerodrome (airports) -- the airways, taxation and excise duties are all the legacies of the colonial administration.

It would be remiss not to mention the academic institutions; the University College, Ibadan, the technical colleges, trade centres, grammar schools, teacher training colleges, sanitary inspectors, forest guards and public buildings like the cabinet office, the railway, roads network etc. They are all part of our colonial heritage.

As we therefore commence plans to celebrate the centenary, we should be honest to ask ourselves: What have we done with these great legacies? Have we built on them like other colonised countries did, or have we destroyed this goodly heritage? One only needs to look at the nation’s infrastructure and development landscape to get the answer.

One hundred years down the road, we cannot point to a single national institution from the colonial days that is currently in a state of operational excellence. Our public infrastructure are so badly run down that it may take decades of diligent rebuilding and remodelling to restore them to their pristine glory. The inefficiency and general neglect of public utilities are so glaring and common place that many local and international observers conclude that Nigeria is a place where nothing works.

The railway has not expanded beyond where the British left it. Many of the wagons still in use are outdated; some railway tracks have been completely abandoned. It is not unusual to find some railway lines taken over by squatters, some of whom have built houses on them. Our water ways have equally been neglected as there has been no significant improvement in water transportation, a key component of maritime trade in any modern economy.

What has damaged the legacies of the infrastructure left by the British is our poor maintenance culture. We’d rather replace than repair because there’s more room for corrupt enrichment in replacement of components than in fixing them. Most of our big public institutions are junk yards of abandoned vehicles and machineries left to rot away
because of minor faults.

On the plus side, our country has made giant strides in several spheres since independence in 1960. We have demonstrated a great capacity to absorb shocks, and our resilience is one of the good things the world admires about us. Our recovery rate from the 30-month civil war is as amazing as our forgiving spirit. It is only in Nigeria that a former rebel leader was given the platform to contest for the presidency of the country he fought against.

It is true that our politics is often noisy and violent, but after the first republic debacle, we seemed to have discovered how to keep the nation from blowing up whenever it sails close to the precipice. And now, the jinx of civilian-to-civilian succession has been broken finally. Gone are the days when opposition politicians instigated the army to take over because they lost elections. Our democracy despite the profligacy of our politicians is maturing, slowly but steadily.

We are a nation with enormous potential that are yet to be fully tapped. Our human and natural resources, a population of 167 million, vibrant market, and a vegetation rich in biodiversity guarantee our future as an emerging economy.
Nigeria has a lot to celebrate but we are not there yet. We are still a work-in-progress like every nation, but the pace of development is painfully slow. Bad leadership, endemic corruption and misapplication of resources stand between us and the rapid progress which our peer nations have made.

A century after we became one country, we are yet to find the right formula to manage our vast human and natural resources in a way that ensures even development across the country and equitable distribution of wealth to our people. That is one great challenge we must look at as we begin to celebrate the centenary, it is not about voting huge sums to build monuments.

The question on everybody’s lips is this: How can Nigeria translate its resources into development? Perhaps, the unexpected victory of the Super Eagles at the just concluded African Cup of Nations in South Africa may inspire in us a winning mentality which we need to turn this country around. The victory of these boys on the eve of our centenary celebration is one of the best gifts we could have. Beyond the euphoria of the soccer exploit every Nigeria should learn from the determination of these boys; their self-belief when nobody gave them a chance.

But the capacity of our people as a whole to reinvent this nation is the miracle we need today as we prepare for the great celebration. So, like the Super Eagles our country men must change their wrong attitude towards this country; our politicians must stop the looting spree and concentrate on the onerous task of rebuilding our great nation.
Nigeria deserves no less, and it expects no less, even if we are far less than we ought to be at 100.

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